Not all music can be listened to at any time, or in any place. For example, you can’t listen to Dodgy unless it’s the summer, you can’t listen to Radiohead when you’re in love, and you can’t listen to Snow Patrol unless the Valium has kicked in.
After having listened to Nino Rojo a few times, I’ve concluded that the ideal place to listen to Devendra Banhart is sat atop a giant toadstool, wearing some sort of pointed hat and puffing contentedly on a giant hookah, happily watching the world go by and expressing a fascinated, near-childlike delight in the surrounding world.
Banhart is a folk musician, a genre I always had a pretty healthy loathing for. I knew it only as a genre that existed to hoover up vaguely hippyish/celtic middle-aged types off the streets of small villages and deposit them in the local Beans & Pulses shop, where they can all enthuse about the local ‘folk scene’. However, I can be open minded at times, and after listening to Nick Drake, Iron & Wine (more of a country folk than the drippy Celtic folk I see around here) and various others, I was willing to concede that it wasn’t all about soppy women in long hemp dresses and no shoes, smelling of natural body odours and not shaving. See? Open minded.
By all accounts, Banhart was a wandering, smelly hippy from LA who, accompanied by some lo-fi home-made recordings, ended up in New York and created two albums from a single recording session on vintage equipment. 32 songs were recorded, and Nino Rojo is the second release. The first release, Rejoicing in the Hands, has been described by Banhart as the mother where Nino Rojo is the son, and that the former contained songs of ‘observation’, the latter containing songs of ‘participation’. Mmm. At any rate, it’s an incredibly simplistic album of one man and his guitar, with just the occasional bit of keyboard and percussion that I suspect were added after Banhart had wandered off to, I don’t know, stroke some trees and tell them how loved they are.
The simplicity of the music is perfect, though. Banhart’s voice is not exactly powerful, warbling and quavering away, but it’s certainly interesting and pleasant enough to keep you listening, with hints of early Marc Bolan and (whisper it) a little bit of Donovan. Little Yellow Spider is my favourite track, and although it sounds at first like a Disney-style ode to nature (most likely sung by an elderly black man, surrounded by cartoon animals), listen to the lyrics and you discover such wonderful lines as “Hey there, little sexy pig, you made it with a man/Now you’ve got a little kid with hooves instead of hands.”
I particularly liked My Ships, with vocals that have strong echoes of Jack White. Horseheadedfleshwizard, aside from having a title that sounds like a personal ad (‘Horse-headed Flesh Wizard seeks same for long walks and discussion of fine wines, culture, wizardry. GSOH essential.’), is less friendly and a little darker than the majority of the tracks here (‘Hose down the dead/before they die’), while Noah sees Banhart accompanied by an unnamed female vocalist which didn’t hurt at all, and is the track most likely to result in lighters being waved in the air. Owl Eyes is an example of how Banhart needs a producer to reign in some of his excesses, being as it is a fairly tedious guitar strumming session.
It’s an album that needs to be listened to. If you put it on as background music then you could be forgiven for thinking it was all much of the same, nothing particularly special. If you take the time to sit back and listen while watching the sun go down, you’ll find a lot to like.